North Carolina is a long state. And this counts for its policy


by Christopher Cooper

I was scrolling through Twitter this morning and saw a tweet by Henry Gargan (I don’t know him, but from his Twitter account he seems nice and smart. Also good bird photographer), observing “always a little surprised thinking how much more North Carolina is west of Asheville.” *

Gargan is, of course, right. There really is a lot of North Carolina beyond the Asheville hours, in fact. There’s a mid-sized university, part of a national park, part of the Blue Ridge Parkway, 8 counties, a separate nation, a ton of bears, some good plate pickers, great white water, three NC House boroughs , two districts of the NC Senate, and the best part of a congressional district.

People have intervened, as one would expect, with their experiences with the geography of far western North Carolina – some commented on how many other state capitals are closer to them than Raleigh, some have talked about the time period from Murphy to Asheville , and one said it’s the same distance from Manteo to Robbinsville as it is from Robbinsville to Dallas (fact check: that’s not true. But I get the point. It’s a long state).

Perhaps unwittingly, Gardan’s tweet revealed much about the importance of political geography for political representation. The distance from the state capital affects how people think about politics and how they are represented.

Even in today’s hyperconnected era, it is difficult to find information on state policy in Far Western counties. The region’s largest newspaper, the Asheville Citizen Times, does not deliver to most of the far western counties. Some counties receive local television signals from Tennessee, Georgia, or South Carolina. Equally important is that informal networks where people get insights into state politics (parties, drinking conversations, and the like) are less connected to state politics as they go. that you move away from the state capital. Consequentially, Education
finds that the sooner you get from the capital, the less you know about state policy.

The choice of candidates for state legislative office also varies as you move away from the state capital. The reason is simple: it is easier (and cheaper) to maintain a life at home when legislative work and home life are close to each other. The “cost” of the service in the legislature (measured by actual or social costs) is higher if you live in Bryson City than in Bethesda. Perhaps for this reason, the legislative districts furthest from the state capital are less likely to have competitive elections than those closest to the state capital.

It’s not only people furthest from the state capital who have fewer choices when they vote, distance also shapes the types of people who choose to run. Research by political scientist Rachel Silberman finds that distance has a particularly profound effect on women who might consider a legislative rush: every hour farther from the state capital equates to a reduction of about 7 percentage points in the likelihood of a woman running for office. So, in North Carolina terms, the odds of a woman running in Robbinsville are about 35 percentage points less than in Raleigh.

So, yes, there is a lot of North Carolina west of Asheville. And distance matters, for the time it takes me to get to Cat’s cradle and the way people are represented in the West.

* I’m a little concerned that by writing a post on esoteric NC that was inspired by a random tweet, I’m venturing dangerously close to Jeremy Markovich /NC Rabbit Hole
territory. I hope Jeremy takes it as a “imitation is the sincerest form of flattery” moment, not a “Chris is screwing me. And bad” moment. I promise not to follow him with any posts on no celebrity sightings.


Chris Cooper is Madison’s professor of political science and public affairs at Western Carolina University. Tweet a


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